The Myth of Masculinity

Gender Agenda

Gender Agenda

Issue 4 Lent 2003

The magazine of

Women's Union

The Myth of Masculinity

Naoise MacSweeney

Why don’t boys cry? Why are men the primary breadwinners in a family? Why do all men love
football? The answers can only be: they do, they aren’t, and they don’t. But does this
mean that masculinity is in crisis?

Young men between the ages of eighteen and thirty are, as a group, in trouble. They are
responsible for most of this country’s recorded crime, are far more likely to commit suicide
than anyone else and, worst of all, pay higher car insurance than the rest of us. The Trouble
With Men has often been ascribed to the insecurity of coping with a society where the
traditional ‘masculine’ roles are obsolete. Men, the statistics seem to be triumphantly
declaring, have yet to find their place in the new world order.

This, however, may be an over-simplification of the issues facing modern masculinity. Any
crisis of identity did not arise from the sudden and catastrophic destruction of a traditional
set of values. Although pop-psychologists and newspaper columnists busy themselves mourning
for the recent passing of ‘Le Male’ and wondering what to set up in his stead, few have
bothered to check what was in the coffin. What we today would call conventional masculinity is
neither conventional nor truly masculine, but an artificial construct, projected onto the
backdrop of history.

In the crusade for sexual equality, accepting the artificiality of women’s roles has never
been a problem, but in comparison, men have received precious little parity. We do not assume
that dysfunctional and under-performing young girls are struggling with the removal of their
traditional femininity and prescribe them more sewing classes, so why should this be an
acceptable excuse for boys? To say that men are suffering in the absence of traditional
dominant masculinity is to assume that what such roles are not only traditional, but natural
and necessary for masculine wellbeing. This would not be doing justice to either the concept
of sexual equality or men as individuals. There is no reason why male gender restrictions
should be any more valid than female ones, or why conventional masculinity should have any
stronger a hold over men than conventional femininity does over women.

For a start, gender roles in society have never been cut and dry. Sociological thought
through the ages has struggled to define the natural state of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ from Aristotle
to Pagilia, often struggling the hardest when roles may appear to be most clearly defined. For
all the gender restrictions of the Victorian age, women’s status was hotly debated, and
despite male domination of early Renaissance society, ideals of manhood were created and
discussed in the explosion of popular chivalric romances. Gender roles are not, and have never
been, fixed and traditional truths, but rather are open to debate, elaboration, and outright

Not only is the very idea of fixed and unchanging gender roles an unsound one, but also
what we conceive of as ‘traditional masculinity’ bears less of a resemblance to tradition than
we might assume. Big boys don’t cry, we say, ignoring that throughout history, crying and
emotional expression have been defining characteristics of the male ideal. From the Iliad to
Le Morte Darthur, male heroes, the pinnacles of male virtue, have been marked out by their
tendency to burst into tears. The ‘new man’ of the late twentieth century is nothing new.
Sensitivity, emotional expression, an interest in domestic arrangements, pride in one’s
appearance – men have always exhibited these (supposedly feminine) traits throughout history,
without compromising their ‘masculinity’. So why do we insist on constructing a flawed vision
of masculinity, and then projecting it back on the past?

The symptoms of such a masculinity tell us less about what the male ideal has been in the
past, but more about our own present discomfort with sexual equality. Our unspoken or
unconscious ideas about gender roles are expressed in past tense for the sake of keeping up
appearances, and have taken on extreme forms which are as alien from ‘traditional’ or
‘conventional’ concepts of masculinity as The Rock is from the lacrimiferous King Arthur. Just
as modern feminists have had a tendency to give undue prominence to the oppression of women in
history, there is also a inclination to overemphasize historical masculinity as being
physical, unemotional, and domineering.

This is a great injustice to men in general. Boys today are brought up with many more
silent social restrictions than girls. New mothers think twice about dressing their baby boy
in pink, but have no qualms about their baby girl in blue. Meeting a young mother recently, I
was surprised to hear how she naturally assumed her young son would become a football
supporter. The reverse situation, whereby a parent would assume their daughter would
necessarily take up knitting purely because she was a girl, would be unthinkable. If women do
not have to conform to sexual stereotyping, why should men? Perhaps the difficulty many young
men have coping with modern society is a result of having a fallacious and downright
destructive view of masculinity foisted upon them. Men today should not have to be told what
they should or should not be or do because of the accident of their sex, any more than women

It is time we started taking the term’ sexual equality’ seriously. It is time for big boys
to be proud of their ability to cry. It is time for men’s lib – call out your fathers, your
brothers, your friends and your lovers. Call them out and we’ll make a bonfire of their



Email us at